Artfull Sovereignty

Richard and Tina Knowles-Lawson are inspiring and influencing others to collect, support and advocate for Black art and artists. Too often, African American art is defined by those who are not of the culture or have limited insight to the culture. Understanding that, Richard and Tina Knowles-Lawson, founded the WACO Theater Center and The Wearable Art Gala, designed for the sole purpose of increasing awareness and exposing youth to the joy of art. MONARCH had the pleasure of speaking with the two Vanguards, who through their artistic direction, dedication and commitment to art, are ensuring that our creative contributions are not lost, stolen or improperly told.

MONARCH: What is the connection to artwork for you?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: What connects me to artwork is the beauty, the history and the story. When viewing a piece of art, it inspires, awakens the imagination and it simply makes me happy. It feeds my soul.

RICHARD LAWSON: As an actor, I am able to use art as tool to teach, research and express myself by painting; drawing a way to encourage students or myself to tell stories. When I began to purchase art, the pieces that would go up on my wall reflected a dynamic or aspect of my life that I understood, loved or wanted to know more about.

MONARCH How far back does your relationship with collecting art go?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: I collected my first piece at 19, and it was reproduction of an abstract. But what it did for the little apartment I had at the time, what it did for my spirit when entering that apartment to see this beautiful painting, it would change my entire mood. I was so proud of it, and anyone visiting would complement the piece. They did not know it was a reproduction. It cost $500. I put it on layaway for three months and it just lifted my heart. My next piece was an original small piece and from that point I was hooked.

MONARCH Were you a collector prior to meeting Tina?

RICHARD LAWSON: Yes, I was a collector prior to our relationship. She is far more interested and sophisticated than me. The number of pieces she has collected are spectacular and really wonderful! Some of my art was left on the walls of my previous marriages, and they are lost but sometimes you lose those things along the way.

MONARCH Art inspires so many people. Through art you are changing lives, inspiring and empowering creators, collectors and all others. Was this your mission setting out as a collector?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: My mission setting out as a collector, originally, was about how the art made me feel. I did not start out to inspire others to collect – that happened organically. There’s something about collecting that’s addictive. Once you get your first piece, you enjoy it every day. I share this with young people who will go spend $5,000 on a Gucci handbag, but when it comes to art, they don’t want to pay for it. But art is something that never goes out of style – it remains year after year, and if you choose the right piece, it will appreciate in value. What it adds to your life and spirit is invaluable. It’s addictive.

MONARCH How did you and Richard discover that you both share a passion for art?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: Richard and I have known each other for 38 years and we always talked about art. When we first met, we discovered we shared a love for visual and performing art. When we reconnected six years ago and I visited his home, he had a beautiful art collection. He visited my home and I had an art collection. We both enjoy visiting museums, so it was a mutual love of art for both of us.

MONARCH What style of art are you attracted to, and do you both share the same taste in artwork? If not, can you describe the difference?

RICHARD LAWSON: We both share an appreciation for art. Tina has a sense of fashion and artistic aesthetic that we both share, although it’s very different in terms of our taste and what we like. We both have a common appreciation for art and its effect on the world, as well as us.

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: No, we don’t really share same the same taste in art. I love figurative art that has history. Richard likes abstract art – that’s his favorite thing. I like the story behind the piece, although I have a couple abstract pieces by African American artists, I’m not an abstract person. So, we really don’t share the same taste in art, but its cohesive in
our home – it works together.

MONARCH Ms. Tina, what is artwork, and how transformative can a piece of artwork be if it connects with you?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: To me art tells a story, no matter what style of art it happens to be. It should speak to you as soon as you come in contact with it. Something that excites you, inspires you, and provides a euphoric feeling that connects you to the artist and provides a deeper understanding to the piece and what the artist is saying through that piece.

MONARCH Mr. Lawson, Who is your favorite artist?

RICHARD LAWSON: I don’t really have a favorite. People ask me all the time – “what’s your favorite movie that you have been in? who is your favorite actor?” I don’t have favorites. I have things and artists that I like through the years. For example, Charles White is one of the artists that I collected early on. Milton Casillas is also an artist I appreciate. My friend Bruce Rubenstein, who is incredible, he surprised me with a piece.

MONARCH You co-founded the WACO Theater Center with your husband in 2017, which is a large-scale mentoring program that immerses children in art programming as they journey from adolescence into adulthood. Why is it so important to you to introduce art to our youth? And what prompted the group’s title of “Angels and Warriors?”

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: I began developing a mentorship program for young, teenage girls, titled “Tina’s Angels.” Within the initial concept, I would enlist all of my friends who would act as angels to young mentees. But as we began developing the program and meeting the children, I was moved by their innocence and beauty, so I made the mentees the angels. This small change in direction enables me to deliver the message, that those kids’ inner and outer beauty is as radiant and amazing as angels; which drives home the importance of art being used to inspire and empower the youth–to tap and bring forth that inner beauty.

A child may not be considered the best student or the best athlete, but he can draw, or she can sculpt or paint.

Making that connection that they have the power to create, the power to bring something from within to life, is a connection with their higher selves, a connection with their creator. You can become a star in art and feel good about utilizing the creative force that’s within inside all of us.

This process is really expounded upon at an event we produce at the Waco Theatre Center called “Passion Day.” It’s a day that we gather with the children for exploration and self-discovery. The focus of the day is to determine what the kids enjoy and what they are good at. It’s surprising how many kids, when asked what they can do or what they are good at, respond by saying they are not good at anything. This is so sad, because we all have something special about us that is uniquely your own. Passion Day is designed to flush that out, and we do not move on from any child until we identify what they are good at.

So, once this discovery process is taken, some kids discover things about themselves that they had no idea they enjoy or can do. Like poetry; some children are exposed to this artform for the first time and initially they are hesitant to involve themselves. But once they take a chance and are well received, it feeds and empowers them. And now, they love poetry.

This brings Richard and I both so much joy. Especially because both of us love performing arts, so we introduce kids to visual and performing arts. For example, we noticed one of the children in Richard’s program, “Richard’s Warriors,” would beat on everything with a pencil. Instead of discouraging his behavior, we re-directed it. Richard purchased a drum pad and encouraged the child’s drumming and now he performs using the pencils. This is a small example of how art is used to identify something that you are good at and love, which is important.

MONARCH The Wearable Art Gala is an amazing production, which seems to express two of your passions – art and fashion. What sparked this idea?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: The Gala is our annual fundraiser for the programs we conduct at the theatre. Because I attend a lot of fundraisers, I notice a trend that is consistent with all of them. You attend, eat and remain seated throughout the event. So, when I began exploring launching a fundraiser, I wanted to do something unique and different, something that would get the guests involved.
So, The Wearable Art Gala was created to be a big party designed around art, where everyone could be a part of the event by wearing the art themselves. It’s a star-studded event with the best food and entertainment, The Art Of it all from stilt walkers to contortionist the presentation is centered around art. There are two red carpets, so everyone can feel the red carpet experience. It’s a very fun, beautiful night.

MONARCH You have had a career as a makeup artist, hair salon owner, fashion designer – all creative and artistic ways of expression. Do you consider yourself an artist?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: Absolutely. I have been an artist all my life. Not necessarily a visual artist, but a performance artist. Thinking back throughout my life when I would develop and present at the Bronner Brothers hair shows, I would put on elaborate performances. Whether doing makeup, hair or being in a singing group – everything I have ever done well has had some form of art or fashion. I consider it all art. And you have to be an artist to pull all of those things off.

MONARCH You once said that reading art books makes you happy. What do you normally find in those books that brings you so much joy?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: First, I’m a collector, so when I look at a piece, I want to know the history. But more importantly, I want to know about the artist that created the piece. I want to know how they grew up. Were they poor, rich, did they travel? What’s their story? Reading art books provides those answers. These are some of the best stories you can find. You can’t really create anything as entertaining as reading about these artists – their journey and what they went through to arrive at their destination.

MONARCH How do you describe your relationship with art? Is it the appreciation of the physical piece or is there a spiritual meaning?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: I think it’s both. I am known to go to a museum and look at a painting and just begin crying, because it evokes so much emotion in me. Henry Ossawa Tanner, who is one of my favorite artists that I’m blessed enough to have one of his pieces, was a classic artist and considered the only black master. His art makes me cry. It’s very spiritual, very biblical. It’s something about his lighting that I connect spiritually with. And then sometimes contemporary artists – their sense of humor or their juxtaposition and how they utilize shapes and objects on the canvas, it makes me smile. I can go through a gamut of emotions. Sometimes, you look at pieces that can make you very angry, especially socially conscious artists that create works about the KKK or slavery. Some of the pieces that I own reflect sharecroppers in the field. When viewing them, I’m transported back to that time period and I can relate to how they felt at that period. So, it’s a spiritual and physical appreciation of the work.

MONARCH Ms. Tina, you own an impressive art collection. Do you acquire your pieces through relationships with artists or other ways?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: I acquire through various ways; purchasing from galleries, auctions and some from people. The contemporary art that I have collected recently, I know those artists personally. And I love purchasing those because I love supporting young artists. We promote them in our gallery, which is in the front of WACO Theatre, where we present artists in a beautiful gallery space. In addition, we showcase their pieces at receptions to heighten the awareness around the artists.

MONARCH Mr. Richard, were you exposed to black art as a youth?

RICHARD LAWSON: No, not really. I grew up with a single mother who worked full time, so there was nothing on our wall except a picture of Jesus and images connected to religions. I knew nothing about black artists, not until high school or college. When I became an actor is when I began a real appreciation for art in relationship to storytelling aesthetics.

MONARCH Ms. Tina, it’s been noted by your children that their introduction to art was “black art.” Why did you believe it was important to surround your children with black art?

TINA KNOWLES-LAWSON: I think it’s one of the most important things as a black parent that you can do. I didn’t want my children to watch television and think that there is only one standard of beauty. That they were limited to look like the girl with the long flowing hair on the cosmetic commercial and think that’s the only form of beauty. So, I chose to surround my children with images of art, encompassing all different skin colors, sizes and cultures so they could see all this beauty. I knew it would open their minds to a whole different standard of what beauty is and place no limitations on what beauty can be.

It’s extremely important to have images of people who look like your children around your children. It gives them something they can be proud of. People ask me all the time how I raised such conscientious women who give back, and I think a big part of that is because they were surrounded by art. Some of the pieces I have are revolutionary and it piqued their curiosity about black people, what we did and what we’ve overcome. I don’t think you can grow up around beautiful art and not become a beautiful person. It brings about a generosity of spirit and of heart, and I think that has contributed a lot to who my kids are as adults.